Comment and Analysis

When we are at our most vulnerable

CAN-SG’s review of Women’s Rights Network Report on sexual assaults in NHS hospitals, “When we are at our most vulnerable”, published 16.04.2023

This report (1) documents the outcome of an investigation by members of the UK national Women’s Rights Network (WRN), who submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to all UK police forces. These FoI submissions requested police data on the numbers of rapes and sexual assaults in hospitals reported to police between January 2019 and October 2022, also whether or not these reported incidents took place on hospital wards, and whether or not the alleged perpetrators were charged with criminal offences.

Usable data were returned from 35 of the UK’s 43 police forces, and these showed that 6,539 rapes and sexual assaults in hospital settings were reported within the time frame, which included periods when hospitals were presumed to have been under increased security due to Covid-19 restrictions. There were 2,088 reported rapes and 4,451 sexual assaults. Of these, 1,021 were reported as having taken place on hospital wards. Of the total 6,539 reported incidents, only 265 resulted in a charge or summons.

The WRN references the 2018 report from the Care Quality Commission (CQC), ‘Sexual Safety of Mental Health Wards’, (2) as the background to its investigation. That 2018 CQC report led to two documents, published in 2020 (3) and 2022 (4), whose recommendations focussed on changing the culture within care homes and mental health wards and improving processes for recording and reporting sexual offending in those settings. The WRN notes that the CQC’s recommendations resulted in the adoption of sexual safety policies by most NHS hospital trusts, but that there has been a lack of interest in investigating the relationship between single sex spaces in hospitals and the risks of sexual assaults, and little analysis of the sex of either victims or alleged perpetrators.

Data returned under FoI requests did not determine the proportions of victims’ or perpetrators’ sex. The WRN report notes “ … there is little analysis of the sex of either victims or the alleged perpetrators. However, it should be noted that rape, by definition, can only be committed by a male (5) and men are seven times more likely than women to be arrested for a sexual offence (6). Instead, the victims of sexual incidences are reported in relation to whether they are in care, hospitals, or community. This is an obvious and abject failure as it provides no useful data which would enable hospitals to fashion policies to address the sexual violence that is taking place on hospital property. As a result, NHS Trusts are failing in their duty to protect both patients and staff” (1).

The WRN report ends with several recommendations, which include calls for more comprehensive recording of data on sexual violence in hospitals by police authorities, and of the outcomes of reports of sexual assaults reported to them, and for NHS authorities to review existing safety measures and to “take seriously their safeguarding responsibilities, including the application of single sex exemptions for hospital wards, in order to ensure that women and girls in particular are adequately protected there”.

The WRN acknowledges that the data in its report contains no information about the sex of perpetrators or victims, nor of the locations where this high number of reported sexual assaults in hospitals occurs. CAN-SG would endorse the WRN’s call for more detailed collection of usable data. We need evidence in order to draw conclusions about safety in hospitals, and at present the necessary data is not being collected. This should be an urgent priority for the CQC, which should require all hospitals to collect such data as routine, and to analyse it by sex, in order to inform understanding of the causes of hospital-based violence and to assist in designing safer hospital environments.